Lawyer tells of shared parental leave success

‘Shared parental leave (SPL) has been fantastic for us!’ So says new dad Geth who took four months off work to care for his baby daughter Elsie, thanks to Shared Parental Leave (SPL).

As well as being a lawyer at Watson Farley Williams LLP, Alice Bushell is Geth’s wife and Elsie’s mum. SPL was a success for her too. She says: ‘Eight months off rather than 12 feels better from a career development perspective – particularly at my level. I don’t have a sense of “I’ve forgotten the law”.’

This family is a great case study of how SPL can benefit women who are in senior roles or working towards them. Alice is thinking of applying for a senior associate role in the next year to 18 months.

Real life challenge

I’ve found many women I coach through Confidence to Return are reluctant to take full maternity leave. The prospect of having 12 months off and delaying promotion chances is worrying. And watching their male contemporaries move up while they’re away can be devasting.

While coaching Alice through her return to work, it hit home how SPL could be an answer to managing career progression for women in senior roles.

Alice was due to be my special guest when I was honoured to present at the first Women Lawyers and Mothers (WLAM) event in London during the summer. A last-minute work call meant she couldn’t take part in a live Q&A about her SPL experience, but as I told the audience, this is the real life of a working mum! If it’s your priority to be home for bath time, you need to consider if you can take 3 precious hours out for an event that’s not essential to work.

Luckily, I’d already collected views from Alice and Geth to talk through – they’re both keen to share their experience of SPL.

Dad’s experience of SPL

Let’s hear from Geth first.

He said: ‘Shared Parental Leave has been fantastic for us. It’s been so much fun spending time with our daughter at a time when almost everything is new and gives her so much amusement. It’s definitely a different rhythm to life but you adapt really quickly.

‘It’s great that it’s a right so that the conversation at work is effectively “I’m taking SPL, let’s work out how best to handle that”.

‘I’d really strongly recommend it. In our case it also worked out better in terms of maternity/SPL pay, which was an added bonus.’

Mum lists SPL benefits

Alice would also recommend SPL , saying there were no real drawbacks. Some of the key benefits for her include:

  • ‘It makes Geth and I more equal parents on a really practical level’.
  • ‘Geth gets time to spend with our daughter and develop a deeper relationship with her. I had a wonderful 8 months and knew he would do too. Parental leave is just so much fun. Also, he knows her far more deeply already.’
  • ‘I get to go back to work. I really enjoy my job and that aspect of my life.’
  • ‘Eight months off rather than 12 plus, feels better from a career development perspective – particularly at my level. I don’t have a sense of “I’ve forgotten the law.”
  • ‘It will be an easier transition – hopefully! – for Elsie when she goes into external childcare.
  • ‘I went back to work not worrying about her settling into childcare, because she has 4 months with another parent.’
    ‘Financially, as Geth says, it worked out far better for us’.

No need to worry

Did Alice have any worries about returning to work early? Yes, a few – but nothing that turned out to be a problem.

  • On fears that she’d miss Elsie, or be jealous of Geth: ‘It turns out I don’t miss her at all in the day, I was too busy doing my job that I enjoy. I love hearing what they’ve been up to and I relish the time I do spend with her.’
  • On the practicalities of breastfeeding as a working mum, Alice says: ‘There is statutory protection* but work have been just great and it’s just the time aspect of expressing. Also, I went back when Elsie was 8 months which meant she was eating more solids.

* See the ACAS guide ‘Accommodating breastfeeding in the workplace’ for a useful first guide to what employers need to consider.

On the search for the elusive work/life balance: ‘It’s a work in progress! We are allowing ourselves time to adapt to a new rhythm.’

UK’s low uptake of SPL

The positive experience of Alice, Geth and Elsie, of course, makes me wonder why so few people take advantage of SPL, which is a right for eligible couples. (My blog, Why we need to embrace shared parental leave, explains how it works.)

We’ve had the scheme for three years but the numbers of employees taking it have barely grown. Just over 9,000 people took SPL in 2017-2018, which was only 500 more than the previous year.

In many European countries, similar schemes are the norm and other governments encourage it by paying more than in the UK. In Germany, fathers get bonuses for taking up the shared responsibility.

In Sweden, parents are offered 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted – at about 80% of their salary for 390 days – and each parent has an exclusive right to 90 of those days. So fathers have up 3 months on a use-it-or-lose-it basis and, to further gender equality, the government encourages men to take responsibility for 5 months. The leave can be taken until the child turns 8.

Cost and stigma

Meanwhile, in the UK, we struggle with stigma about men’s roles and research suggests SPL ‘remains unaffordable’ for many new parents, because the paternity leave payment is often less than the maternity leave offer. 

Head of research at charity Working Families, Jonathan Swan is quoted in People Management as saying that if you combine this cost with ‘workplace cultures that do not support the idea of men taking longer periods out of the workplace for childcare, gaps in awareness of entitlement to SPL and complex procedures around applying, it’s easy to identify the barriers to higher take up levels.’

We need more employers to help make SPL work by offering enhanced paternity leave packages.

We all need to see that the opportunities of growing equality in the workplace are bigger than the ‘cost’ of giving male employees enhanced paternity leave.

We should all demand gender equality, to allow women to advance their careers at a fair pace, and to let men share the benefits of being the parent at home.

Alice, Geth and Elsie are examples of how it can work.

At Confidence to Return, we can help create a SPL package that works for your senior employees, and your business.


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